Following a tense weekend of legal filings and court defiance, an Arizona group has given California campaign finance officials confidential information about the sources of its $11 million contribution aimed at influencing two Golden State ballot measures.
Even so, the Arizona based Americans for Responsible Leadership fought the state review of its records mightily -- going so far as to spend much of late Sunday afternoon in open defiance of a California Supreme Court order to hand over the documents. And as of Sunday night, the group had asked for an emergency reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The general gist of Americans for Responsible Leadership's opposition has been this: their donor anonymity is constitutionally protected, California regulators are on a political vendetta to use a power even their own procedures don't allow, and the group's appeal of the lower court ruling required the whole process to be put on hold -- even if it meant no more public information until after Election Day.
State officials have rejected all those assertions. And the charge of Democratic political motivations seemed especially weak on Sunday, given that six of the seven California Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican governors.
"This group has repeatedly tried to subvert the process," said Attorney General Kamala Harris in a phone interview Sunday night. Harris rejected any notion that the late Sunday battle was simply too late to help inform voters about the true source of the money.
"There is still time," said Harris.
Following Saturday filings from both sides, the state's high court ruled unanimously on Sunday afternoon that the Fair Political Practices Commission must be allowed to review confidential donor records now... even as the appeals process was underway.
The Arizona group then asked for more time -- until Monday morning -- so as to appeal the state ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But California's justices denied that request, which came hours after the documents were supposed to have been turned over.
"While we are working to deliver the records," said a Sunday night statement from ARL's Sacramento-based spokesman, Matt Ross, "we still believe that the FPPC does not have the authority to take such action."
It then actually took until the mid-evening before FPPC officials began to actually get a look at the donor documents in question. All along, state officials have pointed out that there's no guarantee the mystery donors will actually be revealed -- their quest has been simply to see the documents, and then determine whether or not the donors should be revealed.
The case revolves around what, until this election cycle, was a fairly arcane rule allowing limited anonymity for donors from outside California who didn't wrote political checks with the intent of influencing a Golden State election.
The Phoenix-based ARL made specifically that argument as to why their $11 million contribution to California's Small Business Action Committee PAC -- the group pushing to both pass Proposition 32 and kill Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30.
But the mystery behind the donors has given Brown and his allies plenty of ammunition, allowing them to assign any and all sinister motives of the unknown donors. The governor called the group everything from "bandits" to "shadowy," and the donation "probably the worst abuse in the history of California election law."
Conservative opponents argue the $11 million in question pales in comparison to what Brown and organized labor has ponied up in support of his tax and to kill Prop 32. And they asserted that the donors were no more anonymous than those behind political cash from the American Cancer Society and others.
If nothing else, the episode seems to have kindled interest in new state legislation next year to even further clarify... and tighten... California campaign laws on donor disclosure. One state lawmaker and a nonprofit campaign watchdog group have already promised to work together on a new proposal.
Meantime, some have suggested that the Arizona group's refusal to disclose information could lead to other states asking for more information from these nonprofit 501(c)(4) entities, which have become a powerful force in national politics in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.